Lorenz Heister

Born 1683
Died 1758

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German anatomist and surgeon, born September 19, 1683, Frankfurt am Main; died April 18, 1758, Borum, near Königslutter. Latin name: Laurentius Heister.

Biography of Lorenz Heister

Lorenz Heister was the son of a lumber merchant who later became an innkeeper and wine merchant. His mother, Maria Alleins, was the daughter of a merchant. He was educated at the Frankfurt Gymnasium and received additional private lessons in French and Italian. In 1702-1703 he studied at the University of Giessen under Georg Christoph Möller. In Giessen, Georg Theodor Barthold (1669-1712) gave Heister the opportunity to perform his first dissection of a male corpse. He found "a large male member, but very small testiculi."

In 1703 Heister followed Möller to the University of Wetzlar, where Möller had been appointed "kaiserlicher Kammermedikus". Heister studied in Wetzlar until 1706. When he left Wetzlar, Heister had completed the study of all subjects needed for the practice of medicine. Thereafter he went via Leiden to Amsterdam, where he attended the botanical lectures of Caspar Comelin and the anatomical demonstrations of Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731). One of his other teachers was Johannes Jacobus Rau (1668-1719). Amsterdam was at the time the world centre for the study of exotic plants and one of the few places where anatomy could be studied by practical dissections.

In June 1707, during the War of the Spanish Succession, Heister worked as an assistant physician of the confederates (die Föderierten) of Brabant, training in surgery in the field hospitals at Brussels and Ghent. In the winter of 1707 he visited Johannes Palfyn (1650-1730), then returned to Leiden to study anatomy under Bernard Albinus (1653-1721) and Govert Bidloo (1649-1713), and attended Hermann Boerhaave’s (1668-1738) lectures on chemistry and on the diseases of the eye. Besides these studies he undertook studies in botany and learned the grinding of glasses. He obtained his M.D. at the University of Harderwijk on May 31, 1708.

After his return to Frederik Ruysch in Amsterdam, Heister gave lessons in anatomy with demonstrations on cadavers. Ruysch, the official professor of anatomy, limited himself to an hour’s discussion of his anatomical preparations daily. Heister’s first class consisted of ten French surgeon’s apprentices, his second of German students. He lectured to each group in its own language.

In July 1709 Heister rejoined the Dutch army, this time as a field surgeon during the siege of Tournai. Later he tended those wounded in the battles of Oudenarde and Malplaquet, working in the field hospitals at Tournai, Oudenarde, and Mons. He particularly distinguished himself in Brussels with his care for the wounded from the murderous battle of Malplaquet. At the end of 1709 he returned to Amsterdam, but on November 11, 1711 he was appointed professor of anatomy and surgery at the University of Altdorf, near Nuremberg.

In 1720 Heister was appointed professor of anatomy and surgery at Helmstädt, were his teaching duties changed several times. In 1730 he was charged with the teaching of theoretical medicine and botany, and in 1740, upon the death of Brandanus Meibom (1678-1740), with the teaching of practical medicine and botany. He remained in Helmstädt for the rest of his life. His botanical garden in Helmstädt soon became one of the most beautiful in Germany.

Heister's main significance is as a teacher and author. In Altdorf and in Helmstädt he trained a large number of surgeons and physicians. His books on anatomy, surgery, and medicine dominated the field for several generations, serving to educate thousands of surgeons and physicians throughout Western Europe. Heister’s main work, the Chirurgie, which was originally written in German, was translated into seven languages, including Latin and Japanese. Although not the first European book on surgery to be translated into Japanese, it was certainly the most successful, introducing Western methods to many Japanese surgeons. It was still used as a standard text at Vienna as late as 1838.

Nobody vesting Heister would doubt that they were dealing with a learned man. His library counted more than 12,000 volumes, his herbarium is preserved in 90 volumes. He possessed no less than 470 surgical instruments, most of them made by silver. He died during a consultative journey in Bornum and is buried in the St. Stephan’s cemetery in Helmstädt. He is considered the founder of scientific surgery in Germany.

Heister introduced the use of spinal braces, made the first post mortem section of appendicitis, and introduced the term tracheotomy.

His son, Elias Friedrich Heister, born in Altdorf 1715, studied medicine from the age of 16 in Helmstädt, Berlin, and Leipzig, receiving his doctorate on October 22, 1738. However, he died in 1740 on a journey in Holland.

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